‘You’re Killing Me Susana’ Dulls Gael García Bernal’s Charms
The Mexican rom-com fails to spice up the genre.
Romantic comedies are hard to get right. The typical problem is that they’ve become so integral to our culture that we recognize the beats, tropes, jokes, and arcs of the genre as soon as they arise. The films, in turn, quit trying to surprise or titillate, and just give us what we’re prepared for, which is more of the same. The Mexican You’re Killing Me Susana loses us in the stereotypical a bit differently.
In what even HBO’s Girls covered with more tact, the film is about an actor whose significant other runs off across the world to an Iowa writing workshop. The actor, a soap opera supporter named Eligio (Gael García Bernal), is Me and his wife, a teacher, is Susana (Verónica Echegui). Eligio has a woman on the side and enjoys drinking til the wee hours of the morning, but sees nothing wrong with his marriage until one day when Susana simply disappears. What follows is a blur of toxic relationships, misjudged cringe comedy, and plot developments that plod circles in the Iowa snow.
Eligio asks friends and family, none of whom know of Susana’s whereabouts, and attempts to file a police report. It’s clear that the film wants us to believe that he’s simply too narcissistic to believe his wife up and left him over his constant intoxication and affairs, but it’s reinforced over the course of the film that he’s likely just very stupid. After an uninteresting, overlong investigation of the most boring missing persons case you’ve seen since Timmy went down that well in Lassie (Eligio finally cracks the mystery by Googling his wife’s name), the film finally seems to begin and Eligio sets off to confront his wife at her American university.
It’s here that director Roberto Sneider (who, no, is not a racist character played by Rob Schneider) is allowed to play with the more entertaining moments in the script (based on the novel by José Agustín). Eligio’s journey to GET to Iowa is more amusing than most of what happens there. He trades in his car for the cash to fly though he doesn’t anticipate airport security. When goofy country music scores a harried, post-rectal-search Eligio, it’s easy to appreciate that the 38-year-old Bernal has the same manic wiry energy he’s had for decades. He scrambles away from minor offences (like a taxi fare that the cash-laden traveler could’ve easily covered) like they actually mattered to the viewer.
These chases, run-ins, and minor confrontations with authority are as close as we get to the comfort level of the film, which feels trapped in the beginning stages of Walter Mitty’s misguided milquetoast personal journey. Without that film’s respites of the fantastic, it’s a repetitive, Spanish-language Zach Braff movie. Sure, Bernal is plenty charming but his character is sold to us as a raconteur that cuts through the BS of everyday life (women and international scholarships, am I right?) and it’s not written smartly or sharply enough to justify the bite that he brings to each zinger.
It’s sharp casting in a soft movie that wants to marry light cringe comedy with the kind of redemptive tripe that pins Echegui as the doe-eyed love interest that exists to hurt or save the tragically-flawed scoundrel Eligio. She runs away to catalyze the film, she’s supposed to be this agent of change and proactivity, yet she’s simply set dressing merely leaned this way and that to provoke or admire Eligio. She’s sometimes allowed to show pain or jealousy (which manifests much like her other emotions: staring at Eligio) but her happiness is a bane to the film.
It’s the kind of shallow story you’d expect to groan through on a road trip with a group of sex-crazed teens while the monogamous main character chases his high school girlfriend across the country to prove his love before they all leave for college. When it’s marriage and people pushing forty, it’s too different for the same unexamined emotions.
Like in those road trip movies, little really happens in the film. There are various vignettes revolving around a Mexican being in Iowa – going to a gun range, that sort of thing. The couple each have their infidelities – yes, the forlorn adulterous husband picks up a receptionist lover (Ashley Grace) on his quest to win his wife back – though the wife’s isn’t explored at all. Her matrimonial straying is with a giant hairy Pole (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) whose gaze never grows more complicated than “barbarian rape scowl” and whose purpose never extends beyond his size. Haraldsson plays a murderous, silent version of Jason Segel’s performance as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour: towering, poetic, and not given enough attention.
The characters joke about the Pole’s impressive penis size in private (ha) but as far as allowing Susana any happiness from her dalliance, the film is too uncomfortable to make anything but a joke out of it. The jokes rarely land, be it from the hackneyed writing about gringo food or the mistimed punchline edits where the gag lands and the camera cuts a second late for the impact to feel natural on the newly framed reactors. In such an unambitiously shot film, the editing is sporadic, strange, and inconsistent.
The best part of the film is when Eligio returns to his deserted apartment to find it without power, water, or food that isn’t retch-inducingly rotten. A dirty consequence most rom-coms gloss over, the logistical aspects of the script are the film’s most innovative and intriguing. You don’t see what happens to the abandoned pet cats of the kids in Eurotrip. This is a simple movie directed simply and it’s best when it doesn’t try to swing above its weight class. It has capital-T Themes about an infidelity double standard and Mexican machismo, but at the end of the film we’re left wondering the sad question asked of many offbeat rom-com failures: “Why are we seeing it like THIS?”